One of the most apparent differences between autistic people and neurotypical people is the way we process the world. Autistic people process sensory input differently than most other people, meaning that many places can become inaccessible to autistic people because they aren’t accommodating to our sensory differences. What most would consider innocuous public places like restaurants and airports can become sensory nightmares for autistic people.
I’m sure the autistic people reading this can all agree with me that sensory overload is a huge obstacle standing in the way of functioning in public. One of the most common and most difficult to regulate sensory channels with which autistic people struggle is sound. Our world is loud, leading lots of autistic people with sound sensitivities like myself to seek out ways to dampen the sensory assault of sound. I’ve found a great product that has worked tremendously for me in this area, and I’d like to share and review it for all of you:
High Fidelity ETY-Plugs by Etymotic Research
Simply put, these are a pair of silicon/plastic in-ear reusable earplugs. The coolest thing about these, though, is the fact that they are “high fidelity” earplugs, meaning they cut the volume of sound evenly across all frequencies. Therefore, sound does not “muffle” when using these earplugs, everything just drops in volume. You can understand speech when using these earplugs just as well as you can without them, because they won’t muffle the other person’s voice. Similarly, the quality of music is preserved. Sound is crystal clear, just quieter. (As I think was intended when these were designed, as it appears one of their primary uses is as earplugs for musicians). This is their first big advantage over traditional over-the-ear headphones or foam earplugs, as both of the previously mentioned items will make things quieter, but they’ll muffle sound with it.
These earplugs are also reusable, so you don’t have to keep buying more so often. Their base is made of a sturdy plastic, which also means that they are more easily inserted than foam earplugs that deform when you try to put them in. They do not, however, have an infinite lifespan. With enough usage, the silicon begins to absorb and become coated with ear wax and contaminants that causes the silicon to lose its flexibility, reducing the effectiveness of the earplugs and making them stiff and uncomfortable. The manufacturer says they’ll last 3-6 months with heavy usage, though I find they can last a little under a year before you absolutely have to get a new pair. You can prolong their lifespan by wiping them down with a dry paper towel or tissue after each usage (which I recommend doing anyway because it’s kinda gross to let earwax build up on your earplugs).
These earplugs are incredibly discreet. The clear plastic ends are the only things sticking out of your ears, making them very difficult to see. This is another advantage over the use of headphones, at least if you want to be discrete.
When ordering these, you have a choice of colors and sizes. The silicon tips come in blue, white, or frost. The color doesn’t really affect anything, but if you’re going for discreetness, frost tipped earplugs are probably the least noticeable. They come in regular and large sizes. The regular size is what I’ve gotten in the past, and these are what would fit most people. The most recent pair I just got I accidentally ordered in the large size, but they still fit in my ears and may be even more effective because they’re more snug.
The earplugs come with a neat little carrying case and an attachable neck-cord you can use if you’re worried about losing one or will be taking them in and out. I find this unnecessary though, because they fit snugly enough in my ears that they don’t come close to falling out. You can attach the case to something with a chain ring so you don’t lose it (I attach mine to my wallet).
On the package, the earplugs have an EPA noise reduction rating of 12 decibels. The manufacturer says they reduce noise by 20 decibels. This may not sound like a lot, but I assure you this makes all the difference in many situations. They’re fantastic at taking the “edge” off of loud, otherwise painful sounds, and a simple reduction in volume goes a long way at reducing sensory overload. These are great as “general use” earplugs. I carry them around with me wherever I go. They make being in crowded rooms much more tolerable. I also use them whenever I’m playing amplified music or in a band setting. I play bass guitar in the jazz band at school, and these earplugs are a huge reason I am able to play in a band setting with lots of loud instruments and a drummer around me. There have been several times where I’ve been surprised at just how effective these earplugs were. For example, just a few weeks ago the jazz band was performing at a basketball game. Normally I’d avoid going to a basketball game, as your in an echoey gym with loud fans, yelling coaches, whistles being blown, and that God-awful buzzer. I was originally going to play with these in in addition to wearing noise cancellation headphones, but just these earplugs alone were enough to get me through the game in relative comfort.
Since these are such a great product, you’d think they would command a premium price, at least a $30 price tag. This is not the case, they’re actually incredibly cheap. Price fluctuates based on where you get them (Amazon seems to always have them cheapest), but they’re always between $10-$20. Given that even with heavy usage you only need to get a new pair annually or semi-annually, these are very affordable for what they do.
They’re are a few potential problems with these earplugs. Firstly, being high fidelity earplugs, you will still hear everything when using these, it will just be quieter. It is still 100% possible to become overloaded when using these, but a volume reduction goes a really long way in preventing this, at least for me. If there is a scenario in which you need to cut out sound completely, be sure to make special preparations for that and not rely on these to do it, because they’re not designed to completely cut out sound. Secondly, as with any earplugs, inserting them properly could be a problem for people who have trouble with motor coordination. I have clinically identified fine motor deficits and I still manage to get them in, but this may not be the case for some people. Finally, though I find them to be very comfortable, some may find that earplugs don’t work for them because of their sensory perceptions.
Also, these earplugs are designed to fit adult-sized people, and as such aren’t really appropriate for small children. And really, earplugs don’t tend to work that well for small children autistic or otherwise.
Etymotic High Fidelity Earplugs are perhaps the most important accessibility tool I regularly use. I have these linked on my resources page for a good reason. I would recommend them to anyone with sensory differences that want to make the world just a little bit quieter.
- Effective at reducing volume
- Do not muffle sound
- Cheap, but an effective, quality product
- May be difficult to use for people with motor skill difficulties
- May not work for everyone due to sensory problems that may be associated with using earplugs
- Does not cut sound completely, just reduces volume
Etymotic High Fidelity Earplugs can be found by clicking here.
This review is entirely my own personal opinion. I was not payed, compensated, or sponsored in any way for this review.